The Banias archaeological team recently unearthed one of the earliest churches in northern Israel near the location where Jesus first referred to Simon Peter as “the rock.”
According to the Times of Israel, the 4th-century church might have been built in the area once known as Caesarea Philipp.
According to University of Haifa Professor Adi Erlich, the Byzantine church was constructed on top of a Roman-era temple to Pan — the Greek god of the wild, hunting, and companion of the nymphs. Erlich said the builders adapted the pagan temple to fit the needs of early Christianity.
He also suggested that the church was built to commemorate Jesus’ interactions with his disciple Peter. Some Christian traditions say it was in this area that Jesus gave Peter the responsibility of establishing the church as recorded in Matthew 16:18-19.
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Erlich told Haaretz that the site of the 4th-century church had a “continuity of holiness” that involved “converting a site” from “one religion into one of another religion.”
“We know this from human history around the world and also in Israel, for example on the Temple Mount. When Christianity rose to power, they didn’t look for a new site, they converted a pagan site into a Christian site,” Erlich said.
“Churches always face east, and this building is from north to south. They arranged for one of the Roman ritual niches to turn into the holy center of the holiness of the church. They made adaptations,” he added.
Erlich’s analysis can be confirmed by the decorations, etchings, and artifacts found at the site.
The open-air temple was decorated with classic Roman architecture and contained a small pool in the center. There is also a dedication to Pan inscribed on an altar.
The structure was later “Christianized” and transformed into a church. Archeologists found crosses decorating the mosaic flooring. One area of the temple which may have held a statue of Pan was converted into an apse.
Another interesting find was a “very interesting stone” that had several small crosses etched into it. According to Erlich, they were most likely “I was here” markings scribbled by pilgrims who visited the church in the 6th-7th centuries.